‘Nothing New: A History of Second-Hand’ by Robyn Annear


2019, 273 p.

In Australia at the moment, as in other economies in the world, Treasurers and bankers are wringing their hands at consumers’ “failure to spend”. Different causes are attributed: low wage growth, underemployment, the China/U.S. trade war. I wonder, though, if there’s something else going on. Perhaps, as Greta Thunberg suggested, people are beginning to see that the obsession with continual growth blinds us to the changes needed to keep our planet habitable. Perhaps we are tiring of poor-quality tat that is purchased with the intention of throwing it away. Perhaps we are yearning for a Marie Kondo make-over and just to have less stuff.  For what-ever reason, we’re just not buying new merchandise in the way that we used to.

Historian Robyn Annear is a long-time afficionado of second-hand.  Right up front she admits that “Other people’s detritus calls to me. And from that siren song this book was born.” (3). Her opening chapter is titled ‘Nothing New’ and her closing chapter is titled ‘…Under the Sun’. In the intervening chapters, she embarks on a digressive history of second-hand, told with her trade-mark giggle in the narrative voice.  The book is roughly chronological from 1700s to the present day, and it jumps around the Anglosphere, with Australia considered quite naturally and unselfconsciously among Britain and America, with occasional additional reference to France and Africa.

As she explains, before the 1700s, clothes had long lives, passed on from class to class, generation to generation, mended and remade. During the late 18th century, increased consumerism and the influx of Jewish immigrants led to a commercial market in old clothes, collected by the Ol’ Clo’ man, and ending up in markets where they were revived and remodelled. An international market existed as old clothes were circulated between different countries. In this regard, Australia during the 1850s stood out, as people tended to buy new clothes on arrival in the colony, and there was a post-convict sensitivity over Australia being seen as a dumping-ground for old clothes, as well as old lags.

Once clothes really had got beyond the point of being remodelled, there were other markets for rags.  Before paper was made from wood products, rags were used for paper, with old linen kept aside intentionally to make up-market linen weave paper. Rags could be shredded to make ‘shoddy’, a reconstituted fabric which could then be resewn for new, cheap garments. They could be melted down and mixed with horses hooves and horse blood, ashes and scrap iron to make Prussian Blue dye.  The dust created in the manufacture of shoddy could be used to make ‘flock’ wall paper, and rags could be used to stuff mattresses.

However, by the 1850s there was a change, when direct donation of clothes came to be seen as “charity”, rather than as a market. As is often the case “charity” existed side-by-side with a fear of being ripped-off, so only dirty clothes, beyond repair tended to be donated for distribution to only the “deserving” poor.

With the rise of ‘rummage sales’ in America in the 1850s, and their gradual extension to London in the 1890s, the stigma of “charity” was assuaged by the charging of a cheap price for goods that were given free.  The Salvation Army created its Household Salvage Brigade, which provided a waste collection service, with the collected goods sorted into sale items, and unsellable material directed towards recycling. When the Household Salvage Brigade went into recess during WW I, St Vinnies (St Vincent de Paul) started up the Waste Collection Bureau.

In Melbourne, the first “Opportunity” shop was located in the Cyclorama in Victoria Street in 1925, near the present St Vincents Hospital. Named by Lady Millie Tallis, who had witnessed the success of second-hand shops runs on charitable lines overseas, it was intended to raise money for St Vincent’s Hospital (unrelated to St Vinnies). The Cyclorama had been built in 1889 to house a 360 degree panorama of events like the Battle of Waterloo, the Eureka Stockade or the Siege of Paris, but by 1925 it had been rendered obsolete by the new craze for moving pictures. What better use to put a clapped out, round building?


Creator: Allan C. Green, State Library of Victoria http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/31352

The ‘opportunity shop’ spread to other suburbs, but it died out during the Depression, only to reappear after World War II when the years of “mend and make do” were past, and consumer spending – and, as a result, disposal of  no-longer-wanted goods-  sprinted ahead.

Second hand came to be distributed through a variety of forms: Lost Property Auctions (as Annear points out, why isn’t it Found Property Auctions?), Exchange and Marts in newspapers, antiquarian collections, charity shops as a business, the Trading Post, garage sales, Trash and Treasure markets, hard rubbish collections on the footpath, and e-bay.

Finally, there’s a whole market that is invisible to us in First World countries, whereby second-quality, secondhand goods are baled up and sent to Africa. I visited Toi market in Nairobi, the largest second-hand market, which burnt to the ground this year after being slated for demolition (hmmmmm…)  If you’re not prone to sea-sickness, this rather jerky video takes you on a bus to Toi Market- it really captures what you see in Nairobi well.

When I visited Rwanda, I was horrified to learn that Donald Trump had pressured Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda into dropping their plans to ban the import of second-hand clothes from America, in order to protect their own clothing industries.Only Rwanda persevered. However, as Annear points out, the Chinese government has stepped into the gap, and is now importing second-hand, and  increasingly, new cheap clothing from China into Rwanda.

Written in a quirky conversational tone, ‘Nothing New’ wears its scholarship lightly, but the references at the back reveal the research that has gone into the book. Where footnotes appear at the bottom of the page, they are jokes and comments, rather than references. Robyn Annear also has a podcast called Nothing on TV,  based on her Trove research, which deals with similar material and the very Australian delivery is similar to the narrative voice of the book. It’s a quick, fascinating read that will have you looking up and saying to anyone listening “Hey, did you know?…….)

My rating: 8, based largely on its enjoyment factor

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.


This will almost certainly be the final book that I add to the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge!

7 responses to “‘Nothing New: A History of Second-Hand’ by Robyn Annear

  1. I heard her interviewed on the ABC a couple of weeks ago, and thought this would be a really interesting book. I’m glad to hear that you are happy with the scholarship. It sounded as though she’d done her research.

  2. I wish I had heard her on radio. As I St Kilda Road resident and a person who loves Melbourne’s old buildings, I am well aware of her. I didn’t know about the Trump ban in Africa. How evil can he be. We’ve been told we are doing Kris Kringle op shop Christmas presents next year. Not so sure about that but the number of gifts this for the great nieces and great nephew was sickening. A beach bucket was the most popular and taken into the sand pit.

    • My son insisted on op shop toys for his daughter (admittedly, she’s only 11 months old, so she’s none the wiser). But it’s amazing what I was able to find for her at the op shop. We’ve done a Kris Kringle for the adults for the last couple of years.

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